Chechnya: the Great Migration

Tens of thousands of Chechens are seeking a new life in Europe.

Chechnya: the Great Migration

Tens of thousands of Chechens are seeking a new life in Europe.

Thursday, 18 August, 2005

For five of the last six years, 49-year-old Zara has been sweeping the railway station platform in Nazran, Ingushetia. She would rather not be there.


With her 21-year-old son, Muslim, a computer programmer, Zara came to Nazran in 1999 as a refugee from the second conflict in Chechnya. In 2003 they left Ingushetia and spent a year in Poland, before being deported back to Russia after they crossed illegally into Germany.


“We had already got to Germany,” said Zara. “We crossed the frontier by fording a river. But we weren’t met by our German guide, he just deceived us. We spent three days in a German jail and then we were deported to Russia.”


Zara and her son are two of tens of thousands of Chechens who have sought to build a new life abroad since war first came to Chechnya in 1994. Chechens now make up one of the most mobile ethnic groups in Europe. And being deported once doesn’t deter people like Zara and Muslim from trying to emigrate again.


“Now we are waiting for our passports to expire in two years’ time and we want to go abroad again,” said Zara. She said she would like to try to go to Norway next time, “I saw the cassette of a Chechen wedding from there, it looked like a good life to me.”


She sees no chance of a future in Chechnya. Zara went back to her job as a cleaner in Ingushetia. Muslim had abandoned his studies in Grozny University to go to Poland and did not resume them on his return, finding work in a private firm. She thinks her son could earn much better money in Europe.


Her biggest regret is that Muslim did not pretend to be a rebel fighter when questioned. “That would have made it easier to get political asylum,” she said.


The latest figures suggest that around 70,000 people from Chechnya have applied for political asylum in Europe in the last few years. Only a few of them have had their asylum requests granted.


Many more wish to join them. “What is there for me?” said Aslambek Isayev, a 35-year-old father of three from Grozny. “I would go to France or Germany, not for my own sake but for my children’s future. They can get an education there and if they want to they can return home.”


“Xenophobia in Russian society towards Chechens and also the lack of security guarantees and financial problems in Chechnya are basically forcing many of them to leave for Europe,” said political analyst Idris Amayev.


Those who wish to leave face two main problems: getting a foreign passport and obtaining a visa.


The issuing of foreign passports was halted in 1999 at the beginning of the second Chechen conflict and still only Chechens officially registered outside Chechnya can obtain them. The only exception is for top officials and those performing the Haj to Mecca. To buy a passport on the black market can cost as much as 500 dollars.


Amayev says that the Russian authorities are deliberately not giving Chechens passports out of fear of causing an even bigger tide of emigration. “If Chechens began to ask for asylum in other countries in still greater numbers then it would be glaring proof that everything is not so wonderful in Chechnya,” he said.


To get a European visa, Chechens also face far more stringent checks and interviews than their ethnic Russian compatriots. A high proportion are turned down – including a whole Chechen wrestling team who wanted to travel to Sweden earlier this year.


If refused a visa, many get in touch with agents and traffickers who can charge up to 600 dollars to smuggle them into European Union countries, generally via Ukraine. A significant number of these Chechens then ask for political asylum when they arrive.


The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, or ECRE, an umbrella organisation of 78 European agencies that assist refugees, calls the situation Chechens fall into a “lottery”.


According to figures compiled by the US-based non-governmental organisation Chechnya Advocacy Network, figures vary widely on who gets the right to remain in the EU – from 76 per cent of those who apply in Austria to none at all in Slovakia.


ECRE recommends that European governments do not forcibly return Chechens to Chechnya as it remains unsafe for all its citizens.


“It is too dangerous in Chechnya and dangerous in Ingushetia as well,” said Claire Rimmer, Eastern Europe project office for ECRE.


In other parts of Russia, Rimmer said, it was hard for Chechens to register their residence and live legally, which, as a consequence, exposed them to constant discrimination.


Under the Dublin Convention, refugees can be removed to the starting point of their European journey, and this posed particular problems for Chechens sent back to Greece or Slovakia, Rimmer said, where there was a high risk that they would be deported.


Robert Skidelsky, the British peer and professor, said that Chechens would continue to receive very favourable consideration in many European countries. “Europe does not believe that Chechnya ought to be independent but it does believe that Russia ought to solve this problem sensibly,” he said. “And until Russia does that, the issue of political asylum will remain.”


The reception of Chechen refugees is further complicated by a large number of North Caucasian fraudsters who have sought to pass themselves off as ethnic Chechens in order to gain political asylum. These include Ingush, Dagestanis, Ossetians and even Russians and Ukrainians.


Leila, who works for the French migration service, described how a group of ethnic Kumyks from Dagestan had tried to cheat her. “I asked them to say something in Chechen and they spoke in their native Kumyk, hoping I wouldn’t understand,” she said. “But by then I already knew about ten Chechen words and could judge their pronunciation.”


“And I also have perfect knowledge of the geography of Achkhoi-Martan region, as my speciality is work with refugees from this area of Chechnya,” Leila said with a laugh.


Timur Aliev is IWPR’s Chechnya coordinator.


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